Speak French in sign language


A few weeks of immersion training at the Alliance Française in Paris was all it took for me to master the mechanics of French. Once you’ve got the basic verbs and vocabulary, you can get by in day-to-day life. But the hardest thing about learning another language is the unspoken part, the between-the-lines meanings and culture cues. That can take years.

Fortunately, like most Latin peoples, the French use their hands a lot. Here is a quick guide to mastering six simple gestures that will make you look like a native without uttering a word.

1. The Gallic shrug. Perhaps the best known of all French gestures. Start by opening your hands outwards in a gesture of emptiness, raise your shoulders and then your eyebrows. Finish with a grimace that implies, “C’est comme ça.”

2. The semi-obscene mouth noise* that says you really haven’t got a clue. Raise eyebrows, purse lips and make a farting noise. Helpful when you have no idea what the question was. (*Popularly known as the face fart.)

3. The international sign for money. Very useful when trying to communicate how much money someone has (or how expensive something is), a situation that arises frequently in Paris and the south of France.  Extend one hand horizontally and rub thumb against forefingers.

4. Avoir un poil dans la main” (to have a hair growing in the palm of one’s hand). This somewhat obscure French expression describes one who is lazy. Turn your left hand palm up and use two fingers of right hand to mime pulling a long hair out of it. Frequently used when discussing service industry workers, such as the SNCF.

5. “Avoir les boules” (balls or glands). Quite commonly used although of uncertain origin. Some say it has to do with the game of boules or pétanque. It expresses a special mix of anger and frustration that is universally understood in France. Point both hands towards base of neck and form fingers loosely in the shape of balls. Move back and forth to demonstrate gonflement.

6. “Avoir un coup dans le nez” (literally, to have ‘one’ in the nose). A quick way of signing that someone has had a few drinks. Make a fist and hold by nose. Rotate once or twice, quickly. The drunk in question will never even notice.

Finally, let us not forget the international symbol for “stick it where the sun don’t shine.” The French are known to use this in the form of either the bras d’honneur  (formed with the elbow) or the good old finger — doigt d’honneur. But don’t be misled by the fancy name – there is nothing honorable about either gesture.

Warning: If you flip the birdie to a Frenchman (as I learned from painful experience) you risk being confused with a local and sparking a stream of obscenity that goes right over your head. If that happens, try gesture #1.